My job sometimes involves a lot of driving down long Northern highways on cold mornings; when your school board is roughly the size of Albania, you get to see a lot of beautiful sunrises. Those early morning drives—leaving in the dark while everyone else is in bed, driving over frozen bridges with steam rising off the water, periodically getting blinded by lights coming at me from the other side of the road—are really good for thinking. I have my own version of carpool karaoke, except it’s just me and the cold.
Lately, I’ve been playing music I used to listen to in college: the rebels, the riot grrls, the angry singer songwriters I loved when my hair was shaved and my combat boots were the perfect accessory for my baby doll dresses. On my last drive, I was listening to “What Do You Hear in These Sounds?” by Dar Williams and the lyrics, combined with my introspective mood, got me thinking about therapy, and why I need it.
As the song goes…
“When I talk about therapy I know what people think… that it only makes you selfish and in love with your shrink.”
So, when I talk about therapy…but I don’t. I don’t talk about therapy. Why don’t I talk about therapy? Well, I’m not really sure. I like my therapist—he’s very kind and manages to prod with just the right amount of insistence so that I get where I need to go. His questions often lead me to places that I already know need visiting but that I would usually push aside in favor of an episode of Paw Patrol or the inexhaustible pile of laundry that always seems to dog me. That hour every few weeks makes me think about things I’d rather forget, and it makes me take a long hard look at myself.
It’s like a mini Yom Kippur, a reckoning with myself that I wouldn’t otherwise take time for unless it was scheduled into my calendar.
“But, oh how I loved everybody else when I finally got to talk so much about myself.”
I have great friends, fantastic people who I couldn’t live without. But I feel awkward about burdening them with all of my psychological baggage. Who really wants to hear about someone’s pain every time they have coffee? My husband also has a limited amount of patience for it, especially given how little kid-free time we have together; do we really want to spend it talking about my childhood?
But I do want to talk about it and sometimes, particularly as issues come up in my own parenting and marriage, I feel the need to talk about it a lot. I need to understand my own reactions and to get some insight from someone who is completely outside of the situation. Counterintuitively, when I take that time to talk about myself, I can be less focused on myself and more focused on my family and friends when I’m with them.
“And I wake up and I ask myself what state I’m in. And I say well, I’m lucky, ’cause I am like East Berlin. I had this wall and what I knew of the free world was that I could see their fireworks and I could hear their radio.”
That’s what it’s been like for me. I always felt slightly disconnected, even as a small child, like there was something off about me, something that kept me separate from other people. They knew how to live and I didn’t, I was just pretending. I watched them for clues about how to act, and I tried to copy them. I so desperately wanted to be liked and accepted that I took myself apart, hoping that if I rebuilt myself in someone else’s image that I’d make the grade, that I’d finally get past the gatekeepers.
When I was in my first year of college, a friend told me that I needed to stop trying so hard. At the time I had no idea how to do that. I thought that if I stopped moving, I’d stop being. The only way I felt accepted was to be in constant motion, doing things for other people to ingratiate myself, hoping that would be enough.
“And I thought that if we met, I would only start confessing and they’d know that I was scared, they would know that I was guessing.”
Well, it turns out that it doesn’t work that way. You don’t get to make authentic connections with people if you’re not being authentic yourself. It also turns out that everyone is just as strange as I am—they might be strange in another way or in a different kind of pain, but everyone has their own difficulties. If you think someone’s life is perfect, you just don’t know them very well. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve told someone, heart in my throat, what I’ve been going through, only to have them shrug and tell me they’ve gone through something very similar. It has floored me.
It was therapy that gave me the courage to speak—to be honest with myself and other people and to not be so terrified of people’s reactions. In therapy I learned that my pain wasn’t unique; it was actually pretty common, and it didn’t have to mark me for life. It was just one thing about me, like my greying hair or my preference for really loud pants—OK, maybe more important than those but still, just one thing.
“But the wall came down and there they stood before me, with their stumbling and their mumbling, and their calling out just like me.”
So, I’m going to try talking more about therapy, and no, not just in this article. I’m going to try to do my part to make it a more normal thing, something that could get tossed into conversation like a trip to the hairdresser or the massage therapist. Because I think if we could all get a little more comfortable with talking about our mental health, we might find that distances between us get smaller. To borrow from the Unetanah Tokeh chanted during the high holidays, by remembering all that we’ve worked hard to forget, we might find peace instead of feeling pursued.